WHILE the heirs of the Pilgrims feast on turkey and fixin's this Thanksgiving, so will the other descendents of that first feast--the Indians.
Ask native Americans what they eat for Thanksgiving and you may hear: "the usual." Or. "what everyone else eats."
What everyone else eats is, of course, originally and traditionally Indian.
After all, it was their know-how that taught colonists the business of food gathering on unfamiliar terrain -- the way to capture wild game such as turkey, and the skills to plant and harvest corn and pumpkin. Eventually the colonists absorbed native American foods and made them theirs -- and now ours.
Like other transplanted Washingtonians, some local native Americans will go back to their home bases for family reunions, for the celebration of harvest time. Others will stay in the area and join friends.
For those who stay, hometown regional specialties will have to go. Thanksgiving for a local Alaskan Thlinget Indian meant fresh Pacific salmon and seaweed, ingredients that would lose something in the transportation. And an area Sioux family brought dried choke cherries, buffalo berries and wild turnips from South Dakota last year, but depleted its supply before this year's dinner. For others, their traditional holiday game -- deer or buffalo -- aren't roaming in quantities as they used to.
But whatever or wherever they eat, it's the original Americans who deserve a real thanks for giving.
Bureau of Indian Affairs education specialist Lavonna Weller loves to talk about the food and folklore of her upbringing as a Caddo Indian. And the family's Thanksgiving feast in Binger, Okla., was a grand occasion. As a youngster, she would join expeditions to gather possum grapes for juice and jam, stage "raiding parties to neighboring farms" to stock up on pumpkins for sugared and fried pumpkin and watch her parents grind corn in the hollowed-out space of a giant tree trunk. Now, says Weller, the guest list has shrunk from 50 to 30, but the grape juice, fried pumpkin and heritage are still there. As an elder now, she's in charge of the after-dinner hike in the woods, telling Indian stories to the children and making the famous Indian fry bread.
LAVONNA WELLER'S FRY BREAD (Makes 6 to 8) 2 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking powder Pinch salt 3/4 to 1 cup very hot water Oil for frying
Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Add water and mix to make a wet dough. Set aside.
Heat about 1 1/2 inches of oil in a skillet while you prepare the dough.
Pour half of the dough mixture onto a generously floured board and work the dough until it sticks together and forms a ball. The dough should remain gooey on the inside, but have a floured coating. Separate dough into smaller balls, approximately 2 inches in diameter. Press each ball into a little disc, making sure the center is flatter than the outer rim (so that the center doesn't get doughy).
When the oil is very hot, drop the bread into the skillet. Fry for 2 or 3 minutes on a side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
"Traditions have lessened," said tribal council president Roger Jordain on a recent visit to Washington. "We've followed the line of least resistance -- we even eat TV dinners now." That may be the diet for some Red Lake, Minn., Indians whose predecessors used to dine on skunk and caribou, but harvesting wild rice and catching walleyed pike is still a way of life for many of the tribe. And with those food specialties, it's hard to believe too many Red Lake Indians will be eating turkey TV dinners this year.
CHIPPEWA WILD RICE DRESSING FOR FOWL (Enough for 4-pound fowl) 2 cups wild rice 5 cups water, salted 1 teaspoon sage 2 teaspoons chopped onion 1/4 cup melted butter Green peppers or mushrooms, chopped (optional)
Wash rice and combine with salted water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for approximately 40 minutes or until most of the water is absorbed and the rice is tender. Add remaining ingredients and stuff fowl.
Like other native Americans, Bertha Jennings, a local Ottawa Indian who grew up in Honor, Mich., didn't necessarily observe Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Late October, when "the crops were in, the beans dried out," was the signal for a harvest festival and family reunion. Now Jennings invites other American Indians to her Bethesda home on Thanksgiving day and prepares a traditional feast -- ending with one of her pie specialties.
BERTHA JENNINGS' CRANBERRY AND APPLE PIE (Makes 1 9-inch pie) 2 cups apples, chopped 2 cups cranberries 3/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon Dash of apple pie spice 2 or 3 tablespoons flour 1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell
Mix together apples, cranberries, sugar, cinnamon and apple pie spice. Sprinkle the bottom of the unbaked pie crust with the flour so that the fruit doesn't saturate the dough when cooked. Pour the fruit mixture into the pie crust and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
The president of the metropolitan area's American Indian Society, Mitchell Bush, organizes annual Thanksgiving dinners for the society's 300 or so members (from 76 tribes), where they "stick with traditional" foods -- turkeys and hams, wild rice and maybe stew with buffalo meat. Everyone gets a food assignment and Bush, himself an Onondaga Indian from Upstate New York, sometimes makes his mother's traditional soup.
IROQUOIS CORN SOUP 2 pounds dry red kidney beans 4 No. 2 1/2 cans Northern white hominy 1 pound salt pork, cut into small strips
In a large kettle with water to cover, boil beans for 20 minutes. Drain. Add more water and boil again. Drain. Combine beans with undrained hominy and 3 quarts of water. Add salt pork and cook slowly for 2 hours. The soup should have a white appearance when done.
Thanksgiving in Woodbridge, Va., will require some adaptations for the Sioux Standing Elk family from Porcupine, S.D. Dried meat soup and beef tripe with vegetables were holiday specialties; the air here is too moist for drying. But there will always be the warmed pudding called wojapi -- although this year's fruit will be the kind that grows wild in the supermarket.
BETTY STANDING ELK'S WOJAPI 16- or 17-ounce can of fruit such as blackberries, boysenberries or blueberries 4 cups water 4 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1/2 cup water Sugar to taste
Bring fruit and water to a boil. Remove fruit from saucepan with a slotted spoon and mash. Return mashed fruit to pan. Mix cornstarch with water and add to mashed fruit. Continue to boil until thick and add sugar to taste. Serve hot with fry bread.